The Marriage

It is hung as wet laundry on the line,
drying off in the sun,
caked with silt driven by the wind
deep into the fibers, gray-brown to the eye
and gritty to the touch.

There is blood in the edges
where the bleeding could not be stemmed
as the wound was too wide, and infected,
which explains the yellow splotches
surrounding the burnt red stain.

You cannot reach it to haul it in, it waves over an abyss
and the wheels that crank the cord inward
are frozen with amber rust
in unintended echo of the bloody fabric
now swinging in a flat sheet against the wind.

I stripped it, long ago, off her mind,
bearing as it did the scars of many injustices,
disrespects, unfair assumptions,
self-sustaining prejudices, angered impulses,
detritus of three decades together, and at war.

She moves naked now, her maimed mind exposed
to the view of unseen witnesses.
She is so long oppressed that she does not care.
Shame is an alien concept, inconsequential
as the dirty linen of her life, stiff and sullied in the wind.

I am reminded of what I have contributed,
committed, convened, convoked, concocted, created
while looking straight ahead at my own road.
Sometimes, glimpsed realizations are revealed in pain
which leads me simply to deny. She used to tell me, but now we do not speak.

Walt Disney

I wanted a family like Walt Disney might create.
Or Norman Rockwell.
Or some 1950s television show.
Such nicety is scorned today, hallmark of a co-opted mind
it is my mind’s view.

And small children mold to the form,
their instincts are simple, pure and sweet
and predictably selfish in places I was pleased to sate.
We laughed, cried, fought, puffed proud at each accomplishment
sent them at great cost out into the world.

Now they are spread by miles and decades
Across an America we do not know,
suffering in our own silences as we cannot understand
or have the power to say what we think
the ciphers we have become.

We are polite strangers who feel from memory
for each other’s pain and, when I die, I am sure they will truly cry
for what we have been in the past and, in part, for what we were supposed to have been
we are in the end wandering among the children we thought we loved.

But there is no love in the world, only the idea of it
and no idea can love. Which is why we are so achingly alone.

Money Money Money

Want it need it had it lost it
Chased it pocketed it
Invested it divested it
Bought me stuff and people too.

Honey honey honey
Want it need it had it lost it
Chased it, ate it
Ingested it regurgitated it
Got me stuff and people too.

Bunny bunny bunny
Want it need it had it lost it
Chased it effaced it
Constructed it deconstructed it
Got me stuff and people too.

Money honey bunny
Wanted them needed them had them lost them
Injected them rejected them
Huffed puffed roughed the stuff and people too.

How much money does my honey bunny
Need to clutch inside her hutch.
Money really is very funny
Buying people, buying stuff.
Money drizzling down all runny
Slimy to the mouth and touch.

May Day 2018

Space is zero as it drips
down the leg of time,
the same thing they say but
what do they really know?

I was thinking, in my body
as my mind refused. It was
a passing thought that passed,
gone down the line, without me.

Green shoots pushed yellow flowers through the gravel.
A scouting expedition from the underworld.
What could they see? Soles? Sky? Tomorrow?
Each petal an obelisk to time.

There was a moment
or there were moments, I am not sure,
but then again, are you, and of what?
I have lost my thread. I unravel.

Not much is what it seems as it depends, they say, on where you are standing.
That involves a place in space, so
I must concur that
it does depend, if at all, upon when you are standing.

Gray stone and green shoots, yellow silly flower insouciant in the sunlight.
Where do they go at night?
I know they migrate because at night I cannot see them.
And they observe children concerning permanency of objects!

Mind heart eyes flower stone green
Space is time is space.
Does it matter it is Spring?
I am surprised, but I think it does not.


The essential nature of sunlight is a
challenging what I know.
This simple thing is not so simple.
The prism divides it
and so do the slats of my window blinds
and also it is parsed by my moods.

And it is not just one thing, you know.
It is muted or glaring,
warm or chill,
yellow or red or orange or brown.
It is cheerful with flowers,
annoying while reading,
unwelcome when I bury my mother on a sunny day.

Today I am chatting with the sun.
Chatting up the sun.
Hanging out in dialog with the sun.

Do I give offense to you, here in the open field,
my dialog seemingly the distracted rant of ill people
talking to you, talking to themselves, talking to an object, talking to no one?

There are things you are not allowed to see….
This daffodil is telling me its Spring is informed by this sunshine.
This ray is telling me its Spring is heralded by this flower.

They are talking
and I am answering in my way:
You are not included.
When it comes to me and the sun,
you simply are not to be involved.

Walking to Work, New York City

So the sun came out today. It had been afraid to show its face around here for a very long time. And when that happens, well …let’s just say it is not good news, and leave it at that.

The snow is finally all melted, and the leaves left over from last Fall are beginning to dry out, spreading a mild musky odor all over the neighborhood, a mixture of plants decaying in the presence of cate excrement. Those alley cats who survived the Winter – not all did – are rutting again in the alley outside my bedroom window, raising quite the racket. Almost like a person being tortured. And as far as those cats that did not make the cut, the superintendent of the apartment house across the way found the bodies of two of them, flat and stiff as if they had been ironed, and he put them right at the sidewalk curb for pick-up. Surprising that the rats hadn’t gotten to them, but maybe it was too cold for the rats to venture outside when their ninth lives faded out, and then they just got frozen solid and were no longer an appealing meal.

Or perhaps rats just avoid cats as a matter of instinct, regardless of the health of the feline in question.

Sometimes, I cut through the alley on the way to pick up the 101R. Usually I’m late because I’m not too swift in the mornings, so I try to hustle as usually the next bus isn’t for about fifteen minutes and that makes me late and then I have to make up the time after 5:30 and by then, tell the truth, I’m pretty well spent. But this week, I’m planning on walking. It’s Spring! I’ll stick with the sidewalks, although it costs me another five minutes. No sense shuffling through all the leaves and wet trash now that it has been racked and shoveled out of the corners of that alley.

Not that you get a seat on the 101R. It’s always full of all those millennials who ought to give a gray-haired guy a seat, but they’re all too busy reading their cell phones or, more likely, playing some game.

The streets, unfortunately, take me past Lousy Louie’s corner, were he sits on his upturned milk crate and rattles his metal cup. I swear he uses a small, beaten-up metal cup to scare up donations to the Lousy Louie Living Lame for Liquor Fund, if you catch my drift. He rattles it real hard and loud, so you know to get your change out of your pocket well ahead of time. He will shake that cup right in your face and, if you wince, he will tell you through rotting teeth “don’t blame me, ya know that folding money don’t make no noise if you get my point.”

On the job I’m on my feet nine hours a day on the factory floor, so like I’d ever give that lazy piece of shit a dime!

If the regulars don’t contribute, he’ll try to crack some lame joke to get their attention, to ingratiate himself. Like yesterday, I’m ignoring him and Louie, he sees me coming and he calls out, “hey, Harris, whaddaya get when ya cross the Atlantic with the Titanic?”

So I’m walking past, not making eye contact but with Louie it doesn’t matter. He’s yelling out after me his lame punch line: “Half way.”

That’s just a sample of what he calls his sense of humor, ya know? A real weird guy, some days he’s whacked out or hung over, all red-eyed and smelling from his own piss, sticking his cup in your face and the smell could just kill ya.

Anyway, today I am in a good mood because my daughter called and she wants to see me. Doesn’t happen too often, and usually she wants something, but she knows I ain’t got much and am a few years from retirement so what she asks for is something I can afford, mostly. She knows not to see me if she’s been fighting with that dickhead husband of hers, because once she showed up with a shiner and I had Tony, from the barbershop that Tony ya know, had his kid visit dickhead and explain how sometimes eyes get black but sometimes when you’re not a good person, they also popped right outta yer head. Dickhead, he’s not too stable but he isn’t stupid, or maybe it’s just my daughter now knows when not to come around, but either way what I don’t know I don’t know – ya know?

Riley, he’s one of them shanty Irish graduates, raised in the Church as an altar-boy, learned to look down on those that didn’t make Mass very much, had this real superior air which didn’t get better when the Jew made him foreman a few years back. So now he smiles a lot and, for the good old days when we pitched pennies in the alley, he’ll cut me a break once in a while, but basically he’s always pissed off at something I didn’t do, he’s got me back in shipping which is not a kindness for someone who’s 63 and has spent the last 45 years working on his feet. I’m not going to say anything, wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, but I am hoping he puts me back on the inspection bench, and near the front where the lighting is better so I don’t miss any unfinished edges which end up being sent back by a customer.

And I’m thinking how I tell Rosa I’m going out tonight. Rosa doesn’t exactly get along with Leena, that’s my daughter, so it’s probably not a great idea to tell Rosa I’m meeting with the girl, but it’s still probably better than lying some excuse because, face it, what else can I say? I’m going out drinking with the guys tonight? I got a girlfriend? I’m taking in the opera at the Met? I just can’t have Leena come to the house, or to McGraw’s where everyone knows us. Maybe the hotel bar near the plant – full of people just passing through, though it is in the City and the beers cost double.

So what was I saying? Yeah, Riley. I am thinking I could talk with him, make a deal. I could do what he asked me to do a long time ago, tell him or Goldfarb anything I hear from the other guys in the factory that the boss might want to know, and in exchange he puts me back in inspection. Before they offered me twenty a week under the table, but now all I would like is to be able to just sit down for the nine hours, stay off my feet and avoid the 8pm shift every fourth week also, that would be good. A man my age needs to adjust, you know. Only maybe now Riley found another snitch?

It’s just that most of the guys on the floor, they’re new. All these guys, they replaced the guys I started out with. All my buddies, they retired except for Renehan who just dropped deal right on the loading dock while loading the Model 4s. Heavy bastards, those model 4 units. I don’t feel any loyalty to these young guys they got now. They’re all just marking time until something better opens up somewhere else. No one’s got my loyalty any more, ya know? I wouldn’t blink, reporting what they’re talking about and how they’re ripping off Goldfarb, they deserve to be reported. Yeah, well, ratted on if that’s how you think about it.

There’s the place. Over there, across Thirty-Second. Yeah, it looks like shit. I call it “old school” but no one cares what the factory looks like, only if the parts we ship are machined right. And I’ll give it to Goldfarb, he’s pretty good at keeping up the quality. Greedy little Yid, but Goldfarb machined parts, everyone knows, they’re the nuts.

Hey, glad you came along. Good talking to you. Maybe we can come into town together some other morning also. Makes the time pass, ya know.

The Time of Your Life

“I said, time, time, time is on my side, yes it is”—the Rolling Stones [cover]

But maybe not so much.

This is the story of my time and how I have thought about it over my 75 years. It is painful to write, but for some reason it feels necessary to write it.

Perhaps it is an unpacking of accumulated angst.

Perhaps it is designed to convey to younger folks a perspective on what I suppose to be a typical journey. Forewarned is forearmed.

Perhaps I am just afraid.

And so we begin. And we begin with an admission of failure. Who can recall what a young child thinks about age? It is easy to project and assume, and to have a high level of confidence in that assumption. Thus it would be easy to say that at an early age I became aware of time in the sense that I wished I were older for any number of reasons. That might include being able to play sports better, or to stay out later, or to watch a favorite television program that started as late as say 8pm. That might include wishing that when we played stick-ball in the street, trying to hit a pink Spalding as far as possible with the handle of a broom, I wanted to be older so I could hit as far as the benchmark distance for bragging rights, the distance of the length between the sewer cover we used for home plate and the second distant sewer cover down the middle of the street. So why do we not assume together those assumptions as they are as good as any; they are what I would think that I would have thought. But I confess that I do not recall.

So what is it that I do recall?

I remember pride at being old enough to graduate from PS 189 in Brooklyn, New York and to move onward to PS 232, my junior high school. I felt grown up. We had different relationships with teachers, we were embarked on a joint march to knowledge. They were leading, but we were participants, not silent cannon fodder.

I remember waiting for my learners permit to drive a car, for which I became eligible when I turned 16. I promptly applied, certain that driving was to be easy because it seemed that almost everyone could accomplish it. Even mothers who, at that time, were generally thought to be ancillary functionaries although to be strictly obeyed. And to be defended, with your fists if necessary, when some other kid said something disrespectful about your mother, or simply answered your own taunt with the thrown gauntlet words, “Ya mamma!!”

I remember being angry at my age when I arrived at College only as a sixteen year old. My classmates were all two or even three years older; some had gone to yet another prep school year for anotherl year after graduating from their initial prep school, a thought wholly alien to the middle class streets of Carroll Gardens. They had better clothes, better panache and better academic preparation, and they were far more confident about girls (or so I assumed). What foolish hubris had encouraged my parents to advance me so quickly and to leave me at the whim of my under-agedness? My efforts to grow older on the spot by buying a pack of Camels cigarettes (wretched, and the bits of tobacco kept dropping off from the unfiltered cigarette into my mouth) and by getting drunk at the West End Lounge on Broadway (the policeman was very nice to me, as far as I can remember) did nothing but reinforce my sense of inadequate aging.

I remember pride when I graduated from Law School, younger than almost all my cohorts. I had a head start. I would practice longer, achieve more, earn more, be better for longer. Married at that time, I reinforced my head start by starting to have children. I was young to have children, to move to our two family house and finally our single family house, young to be a partner in my lawfirm, young to have my children advance through school. Time was relational then; it had to do with my personal sequence with respect to my cohort. It had no personal meaning other than a benchmark that made me feel superior.

I am at this point reminded of two of my favorite lines from a movie. Interestingly, they both are about death. I think now that I prefer these lines because they carry the voice of inevitable power with them, a tinge or mortality of which we are reminded not by our own perceptions but, rather, by some broader force or being.

The first is when Orson Wells is dying, presumably taken by his God. The voice intones deeply: “And then death came, as it comes to all men, to Charles Foster Kane.”

The second is when Roy, the last surviving replicant(robotic person, or “skin job”) is about to die in the original Blade Runner movie based on Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Robotic Sheep. Programmed to die at a certain moment by the robot’s God, the man who designed him, Roy turns to the Blade Runner and wistfully recalls the wonder of his quasi-life: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched sea beams glitter in the darkness at Tan Hauser Gate. All these moments will be lost, in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”

When does one begin to contemplate one’s mortality, and begin what I will call the mental mathematical dance we have with our own time to live? I see great depths of truth captured in great movies; I see my own awareness reached and drawn out by the power of what appears on a screen. For many I am sure it is the written word but, for me, it is the written word expounded by the artistic enhancements of lighting and photography and the emotive skills of actors who I believe are putting a voice to the truth and emotion within those words. I do not know if either of these movies (let us not call them films, a pretension of nomenclature) triggered my own initial awareness of time as a fearful thing and a gross injustice to my person, that would be far too pat a conclusion to be accurate, but this is the point about time: it is finite, and when your mind switches from thinking about time as chronology and how you relate to the world, and when you begin to count your remaining years, you have stepped upon the most slippery slope of all. And, you cannot step back onto the high ground.

Not that you abandon how you mark yourself to market on a comparative basis. I still think that I may look young for my age, or be one of the oldest lawyers or partners, or have outlived many or have more energy than people much younger. The old habits do not die. But these thoughts now are secondary to the thoughts you have when you lie down in bed and actually shock yourself by thinking, “I hope to hell I wake up in the morning.”

So now I will explain to you my own mathematics. It does not involve counting down to meet my maker. It does not involve achieving certain things before I die, although I do find myself having those thoughts also. It does not involve being “there” for my family, although of course I think of that also. It is a remarkably selfish and fierce mathematics, and it is all about me.

And it is a false mathematics, unlike the purity of real numbers. It is a subjective mathematics. It is rigged.

I think I was about forty when I started thinking precisely about time. Until then, a casual mental throwaway sufficed—I am young, I have lots of time to do what I want and so I need not think about dying. Anyone can die at any age of course, but for me it is a rarity, and it is a waste of the time I have to worry about the statistically insignificant.

I absolutely recall being forty. Not the day it happened, but finding myself within that cohort. Why? Perhaps it was popular culture beginning to invest a certain decade of life with the baggage of age. People do not call you young when you are in your forties; you are middle aged. Middle of what? Well, your mind translates that into “half-way to dead.” Not a happy phraseology so, let’s change it up.

Maybe the average person of my generation dies at 80 or so. You find yourself looking up those things. Women live longer; well, can’t much parse that metric. Men live around 80, it turns out, though it depends on all sorts of things like race, geography, genetics, not to mention poverty and war.

Well, that’s not so bad, is it? Look at all I have done, enjoyed, accomplished and learned in my first half. I can foresee a picturesque denouement through my second half, learning and earning and finishing raising my children and meeting my grandchildren and retiring and reading and traveling and enjoying the benefits of new medicine that, dare I think it, is likely to give me a few more years than today’s actuarial tables suggest. They never could fully anticipate the incredible rate of medical advance that will actually allow me, a person with enough money to afford the insurance that will allow me to enjoy these advances, to tack on a few golden years.

That worked for me until I hit sixty. That is, for those of you without your slide-rule, 75% of the trip to 80, not a sanguine thought. Time to think about the math you are using. Well, it is clearly wrong, at least as for you personally. Here you are, sixty and healthy and look at all the new medicine, and you seem immune to the things that kill younger men. Is it not true that if you make it to 60, your time line expands. You look it up. Eureka, it does! And we all know about genetics, don’t we? Let’s look at the family tree. Let us ignore those unfortunate relatives who died young and, particularly those troublesome analogies of those who died at say 70 or 75, or just about 80. Not much help from those cohorts. But wait. Dad! He lived to almost 101. Everyone says I look a lot like him. Even the same theoretically unhelpful build, a realized tendency to some body fat. And he did it without all that new medicine. Mom died around 90, not bad but then again she had been a big cigarette smoker in her early and mid-years so let’s just tack on another ten years to her story—fair is fair and after all, my mother’s mother lived to 109, rumor had it.

We obviously misfigured when we began thinking about this age thing. We were counting percentages based on a rough end-line of 80 years. We really should use 100 years. Sure, it seems like a push, but then again think about all the careful analysis that brings us to this conclusion: genetics, present health, new medicine, careful life style, and let’s start modest systematic exercise while we are at it just to be sure. We now have 40% of our life left. Sounds good.

I have a child when I am 60. I am putting my money where my mind is.

Actually, I am putting the kid’s money where my mind is, but let’s not dwell on that, shall we?

Things go pretty well. Now you don’t dwell on percentages as you have a vague but certain sense that the percentage of your time is, by definition, falling. You think about 100 years as your target. You feel good, although truth be told your knees sometimes feel awfully stiff and you get a bit more winded when you walk quickly, and you avoid those hikes up the steeper hills. But that is normal, those are not markers of anything other than your success in getting to where you are standing. And standing you are, that is the point; sure those knees you are standing on are a bit tired, but they deserve to be respected and to be rested a bit more, while your heart and lungs take care of that living thing you have going on.

There is something not good about thinking that your life is 75% over. It is what drove you to recalibrate when you were 60. So happy birthday, you are 75 years old and 75% down the slippery slope. How do you handle those thoughts? Not easily.

We can revisit our already revised assumptions; let’s give that one more try. Medicine is accelerating; great although those advances seem to focus on illness rather than simple aging. People are living longer; great, although a lot of them are those pesky long-lived females and what is that statistic about certain foreign countries pulling ahead of the USA in male longevity? Looks like some of those are European countries with early retirement ages; less stress on those men. Maybe I should slow down? But my self-image a long-lived survivor is tied up in not being one of those short-lifers who actually do slow down. Gotta think more about that one.

What about the end-line? Increase that above 100? That actually does smack of self-delusional manipulation. It is very important not to rig the mathematics so grossly that your mind is required to recognize that you are playing a self-serving game of mental massage. Mathematical Xanax is not the goal. Credibly believing you are going to live a long time is the goal.

So at 75 I have run out of tools to play the percentage game in terms of how much longer I may live. I change up the game. Now I am concentrating on the absolute number of years I have remaining. Again, eureka. I now have twenty-five whole years to live. Given my skills, education, health and attitude, that ain’t so bad. That’s actually a lot of years. Years in which to be sure to slow down a bit and work on enjoying the now-ness of things, of people, of children and friends. Pretty comforting, actually. I am happy again, although truth be told I would trade where I am today, chronologically, for just about any earlier point, however embarrassing and inept I might have been when I actually struggled through that age.

It all works, and you cannot live your life being afraid you will die. To say you will live every day as if it were your last sounds inspiring, but it is actually an anti-life statement, and is enormously depressing. I think this model of personal mathematics is going to work for me for a while. I occasionally think forward and wonder what I might think in fifteen years from now when I am, ugh, 90. Best to not go there, it might cast a pall on the years in between. But when I do think about it, I say to myself that perhaps I will be more tired, less scared, less drive, more at peace. I will see my children and grandchildren in or approaching middle age, or even beyond. My own personal health may be such that living forever seems less appealing. It may be, as I have been told by my own father, that you change your thinking when all your friends and acquaintances and contemporary relatives are gone; not a thought I enjoy but, then again, I have been told this by someone with an experience base I lack.

Thus I am working at living my time and being at greater peace. I have little choice in any event, and that is also somewhat a comfort. I can be who I am, and that may be for good or ill in the eyes of others but it is an unabashed comfort when I am looking at myself.

So it is good.

I just have one residual wish, and that is each night, when am going to sleep. And it is a wish that sometimes does interfere with closing my eyes, to tell you the truth.

Each night, I find myself wishing to hell that I wake up in the morning….

A Conversation

“Well, would you say you have had a torrid past?”

“A what? Torrid? I guess I’m not quite sure what you are asking but, I think probably not. Just about in any way, actually?”

“You sound pensive, almost sad about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, do you think you would like to have a torrid future?”

“Huh. Why are you asking me that? You know, ‘torrid’ is such an open-ended word. It makes me uncomfortable, to tell you the truth. Are asking, like, in a sexual way? Is that what you are getting at?”

She drew in from her cigarette, slow and deep, and released the cloud between them, a momentary thick haze creating welcome disconnect. But then of course it was gone.

“You think I am propositioning you, is that what you think?” Delivered with a disarming, ‘what, me?’ smile. He looked down, in self-deprecation.

She did not accept the implicit dis-avowal. “This is a funny thing, you know,” she said. “Do you know what I miss right now?” she asked?

He drew on his pipe, leaned towards her but diverted his exhalation to the side. His knees came up, he was seated but on the balls of his feet as if expecting an epiphany, or at least a revelation of significant moment. “No, what do you miss right now?”

“I miss having met you on line.”

“Really? That’s not what I thought you’d say. Not that I had an idea of what you might say, but what you just said? I wouldn’t have guessed that a million years.”

Now she smiled. “Let me tell you why. If we met on line we would know something about each other. I would have a better idea where you are coming from. If we met on line and then this was our first meeting for real, I would know if you were serious, or if you were flip or funny or, well something else.”

“You mean, like if I were weird or something?”

“Not that, no. Because if you were weird we would not be meeting in person, even in a place like this. She tilted her head towards the woods behind their bench. “Not that this isn’t public and all, but it’s sort of– remote if you know what I mean.”

His brow knit in either interest or mock consternation, she could not tell which. That being her very point. “Go on,” he said.

“Well we met at Jill’s party. That should have been better than on-line, ya know?”

“Sure, I agree. People lie like a rug when they are typing an answer into a machine at 11 pm and no one can even edit it for fantasy, or stuff you make up, or your being a real creep.” There he was, she thought, deflecting the label from himself by invoking it with approbation.

“Not quite what I was saying. What I am saying,” [slight emphasis on the ‘am’] “is that you usually tell if someone is, maybe not lying which is important, but how they see themselves, or how they want you to see them. You get clues about their personality. You can usually check up on some of the facts which may be exaggerated or even made up, but if you feel creepy about the facts you just drop the whole thing, it’s easy. But you do learn something about how people think, where they’re coming from, if you spend a couple of weeks emailing, texting, ya know?”

“Well, let’s say you’re right. I actually think that you aren’t right usually, but I bet you are right some of the time, okay. So let’s say, instead of the great talk we had at Jill’s about the wine, the food, our jobs, Jill’s current asshole live-in – let’s say instead of actually talking to each other for what, an hour before we exchanged our phone numbers – you could have learned more about me after four weeks on line. Then you wouldn’t be surprised by what I just said. Okay, let’s talk about the fact we didn’t have the email thing, the text thing, we only had that in-person thing, right? So what about what I was saying that was so upsetting? You think I turned out to be a creep, or I’m just trying to hook up? Maybe I’m just not very good at second meetings, or first dates or whatever this is? Maybe I tried for a flowery word and got the wrong word? Or maybe you’re just nervous and misread what I said? You’d give me space if we were texting on our cells and I was fifteen miles away in the West city, so do I get another chance now, in person, when I was attracted enough to call you and invite you for a walk? It’s a beautiful day, right? I called and asked, right? Public place, right?”

He leaned back and squared his shoulders, proud of his rebuttal. The wronged man keeping control of his hurt. Telling it like it is.

She let the silence sit for a while, defusing the defense by not jumping forward to reassure. She was too smart for that, too assured to fall for the “wronged guy” gambit, she thought. She drew on her cigarette, then realized it was down to the filter and she stepped it out on the paving stone. The she smiled.

“What’s funny,” he asked with some diffidence.

“No, I was just thinking, no one smokes any more, unless it’s grass, and here we are, two people who happen to smoke.”.” She paused to give the irony a chance to sink in, and a chance to defuse the moment.

He glanced down at his burned-out pipe and tapped its bowl gently to empty it into the center of the path before them, which annoyed her for a reason she could not identify. They sat for a minute, perhaps more. She took a thin silver cigarette case from her fanny pack; she had debated with herself and decided carrying a purse to walk in the park was not the right touch; she was, after all, well into her thirties but still quite young, as these things go. She offered him a smoke which he took, and he reached into his pocket and offered her a light. The torch from his lighter made her tilt her head upward to avoid the heat of its long flame. She exhaled and smiled.

“In the old days, we would have said. ‘that’s a good sign, two on a match.’”

He went with it. “Yeah, guess so. No more matches,” he shrugged with a version of an affable grin. They sat and smoked.

“Can we start again,” he finally asked.

“Sure,” she said, mustering a smile, perhaps over-broad but no harm to it. She was a nice person, and not so certain but that she had not over-reacted. She thought, ‘it isn’t like he leaned over to me and the first thing out of his mouth was “let’s screw, whaddaya say?”

She smiled again.

‘Yesterday I was reading the New Yorker. Do you get the New Yorker?” He didn’t wait long enough to see her slight shake of her head. “SO there was this article about this ancient sect, in Iraq? They are persecuted by everyone, but some are in the States so the ones in the US, from all over, they organized and they do a march? On Washington?”

He paused for reaction. ‘He has that Millennial habit of turning statements into questions, she thought. She was careful about not doing that. She was careful not to use the word ‘like’ as a connective. She was careful in her spoken word. In fact, she realized, she was careful about just about everything, not that that related to the moment. Perhaps.

“No, no, I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “What are they called again?”

“The yatzics or something. Sorta like Yahtze, the game? Not that of course….”

“So what happened?”

He paused and laughed and looked straight at her. “I don’t know. I realized just now that I didn’t finish the article yet.” He looked down and shook his head slowly. “Shit, I did it again! I’m just not very good at this, am I?” He looked up again. “You must think I’m a moron who can’t talk without three glasses of wine in him at someone’s party….”

She felt now she should save him from the hole into which he had purposely jumped. The expected ritual, in person at least and as she understood it, was that when someone showed you their soft underbelly, when they in fact said to you “look at my soft stupid underbelly,” you were expected to jump in and say “oh not a problem” or “we all have our own soft underbellies” or even “oh now, I love how your underbelly is so soft, so human, let’s run with your soft underbelly, let me share it, embrace it, confess to you I have one or three of my own.”

“No, I’m interested,” she said. “Maybe you can read the rest of the article and email me how it all came out.”

No, no she thought, not enough. “Or,” her eyebrows up now with a slight coquette-ishness in her aspect and voice, “you can tell me all about it at our second date, and we could see if you are better the second time around.”

She knew she had played that moment expertly, according to Hoyle, but then was not sure she had wanted in fact to play another deal; ‘be careful what you wish for,’ she thought but did not say.

He stood. “Let’s take a walk,” he said, holding out his hand. Then, “if that’s okay. We can stay on the path around the park, no need to go into the deep dark woods,” he said with a self-deprecating lilt as he held his smile.

“Why don’t you just lead the way,” she said lightly.

“My pleasure,” he replied.

“Gotcha!,” he thought.

(April 2018)

Gettin’ Outta Dodge

My mother loved to drive fast. Faster than my father, which seemed somehow strange in 1957, when men were men and cars were men-things with roaring engines and huge tail-fins. Our gray Buick Roadmaster was, however, just the right wheels for my mother. Big, wide, powerful, stable, nice red leather seats, lots of style. Fake air intakes on each front fender, really just holes punched in the metal, rimmed with chrome, only about two inches deep where they stopped abruptly at a black metal plate; enough to look real.

And that beast ran fast and strong, eating gasoline as it rolled down the road. Or while in the gas station. The joke was you had to turn off the engine while filling the tank, or it would burn fuel faster than the pump could dispense it.

Our Roadmaster was part of our family’s unspoken dominance of our middle-class block. We always send subtle messages of financial success that I am sure were not perceived as subtle. Biggest round-screen television on the street. First post-war vehicle on the street, a green Dodge coupe fresh from the newly reopened automobile plants. A cabin in the mountains for the entire summer, not the two weeks afforded most families, where we could bring up all our summer clothes and ensconce our family more or less in the manner of a cabin owner; we even had our own hand-pumped DDT sprayer, brought up from the City, to shoot down the invading mosquitos and hornets, unaware that each push of the plunger into that narrow orange tube of poison was supposed to be taking months off our lives as we breathed deeply the sweet aroma.

The Buick, the largest Buick, was another statement; it was not a Cadillac but only the local doctors had Caddys. The lesser nouveaus had big Buicks, or maybe an Oldsmobile. That summer we broke tradition and took an eight-week tour-de-USA rather than go “to the mountains.” A break from gin rummy and mah jong and weekend borscht circuit comics for my parents; no Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and their filthy “fuck-filled” comedy routine; no Henny Youngman and his jokes with Yiddish punch-lines; no bunch of kids running up the hills, harvesting buckets of high-bush blueberries and carrying them back to the cabin where they would be de-stemmed, dumped into a big bowl without need to wash them as they were wild and not sprayed with anything, and then topped with the cream floating on the top of the milk bottles. Our family was redefining our summer genre. We were going “out West.”

We sat for days that Spring laying out the itinerary. We used trip tickets, strip maps from the Triple AAA, to plan our route. We used the AAA guide to select hotels and motels; my mother was not one to sleep just in any old place, and my father was not one to leave our accommodations to chance. He would estimate travel times, telephone ahead, and send a check by mail and request a written room reservation be mailed to our home. He filed the confirmations along with the maps of each area and notes on local attractions in one of his legal folders. Our trip was planned for every single night. It never occurred to us that anything might interfere with our schedule. And with motel rooms at the high end charging an unheard-of $12 per night, you would have been crazy to decide on a side-trip and blow that kind of money on a whim.

We did have one planning advantage, however. We were able to plan ambitiously, including all sorts of semi-minor attractions within our time budget because we had two drivers, my competent father and my daredevil mother. We assumed that, as a woman, she was inherently careful and of good judgment so, when we decided to drive that first day from Brooklyn, New York to Ames Iowa, we dutifully arose at 3 am, left with our pre-packed bags at 3:30, and as we cleared Manhattan at the crack of dawn my father gave the wheel to my mother and rest was history. The Interstate road system was far from complete, but major sections allowed us to roll at seventy miles per hour and, when you finally hit places like Wyoming and Montana and Utah and New Mexico, there were no speed limits in some places and many ignored admonitions not to exceed 80 or 90.

A Roadmaster, properly broken in, can cruise in total comfort at a hundred. You can let it creep above that on the down-slopes, particularly on Western roads that are two-lane but with visibility of five miles ahead. And with easy identification of an oncoming car, a dark moving big on a silver sun-reflecting ribbon of road, there was always time to make sure you put two hands on the wheel and slow way down to ninety.

We had swung South that day, August 14, 1957, and we were fully gassed and the windows are rolled up and I was reading from my pile of comic books and occasionally glancing up as a couple of cars pass by, heading against us into the sun, as I was paid a nickel for every fifty Fords I counted on the trip and you didn’t want to miss any cars at that rate, seeing as how a Hershey bar was a nickel and a double feature at the theater was a quarter. I would argue now and again that Ford trucks should be counted, chaffing against the palpably unfair “private cars only rule.” The windshield was already festooned with viscous white splotches and discrete red circles and any number of waving insect wings, and mother was casually steering at a hundred miles an hour, and I was in the front seat, leaning towards oncoming traffic and looking for the boxy dullness of my Fords, each a tenth of cent but my how those do add up when you are on the road for six weeks, even if you don’t consider those lucky few moments when your AAA strip map happens to guide you alongside a field of new Fords awaiting transshipment to a local dealer.
Then, suddenly, there is a quick distant pop and an instantaneous thumping below us. There was nothing for us to hit, but I catch in the corner of my eye a rolling, bouncing black banana peel in my rear view mirror, and then the constant low screech of metal on the concrete road.

“What the hell was that, Bets?” My father’s back-seat reverie has been invaded.

“Think we blew a tire,” said my mother with the same tone as “do you want your oatmeal with raisins?”

“Front or rear,” my father asks, great concern in his voice even as the car is slowing, we are all the way down to 75 and the car is pitched forward and to the passenger side.

“Front right,” says mother, which at the time impressed me with her grasp of automobiles until I later realized that she was holding the wheel and no doubt had an intimate feel for the moment.

“Fa godzake, slow down and get over,” yelled my normally laconic father.

“Don’t think that’s so smart, Mick,” she said, holding straight down the road, not sharing my total front seat panic as I saw a truck coming towards us on the narrow opposing lane. “We’re all the way down to 60 and I am afraid to turn the wheel with no tire.”

“No tire?”

“Saw it strip off in my mirror a mile back, I think.”

“Mom,” I yelled to no advantage.

“Don’t worry,” she replied.

Being an obedient teen, I didn’t. Which was stupid but comforting.

At around 30, mom gave the wheel a slight nudge towards the side of the road, which caused the car to buck deeply and then there were a bunch of sparks in the rear view mirror. We straightened out, but our path now had our right tires off the pavement and my mother was pulling the wheel left to stay straight as we slowed quickly. And finally, it was over, the car half on the roadway and half on the dirt shoulder. Behind us, a long dirt furrow paralleled the highway, ending at our right front wheel. Although there wasn’t any wheel, just a few metal shards bolted to the axle.

“Shit,” I said.

“Move away from the car, please,” said mother. “And while you’re at it, watch your tongue, young man.”

Father tied his handkerchief to the radio aerial, and the very next car pulled over and asked if we had a problem. America was a simpler place then, one car came along and that one car stopped. The driver dried his palms on his denim trousers, bent down and looked at the front non-wheel, and said he would give us a lift to Johansen’s Garage in Dodge. My father went to lock up our car and the farmer smiled. “We’re from the city,” I explained.
“I know,” the farmer said, and smiled some more.

The chief mechanic and, turns out the owner, of Johansen’s garage is an Irishman named McNamara. One of those “call me Mac” McNamara’s. There is no Johansen in sight. But Mac has no charming Irish brogue; he sounds just like someone from Kansas, with a soft nasal twang just creeping out of the thin slit he allowed his mouth to reveal.

“She looks pretty bad.”

Mother: “Oh dear.”

Father: “How much pretty bad?”

Mac: “Well, the wheel is just gone, ya know? Brake shot; can’t tell if there is anything with the axle until I crank her up. Don’t keep wheels that’d fit that car, not here. We got ‘em for Fords and Chevy trucks and for the DeSoto and the Hudson but got no call for parts for Buicks. Take me a few days to get the part from Chicago, maybe Detroit, dunno, never ordered nuthin’ for these big GM cars, ya know?”

Father: “But you don’t understand, sir,” with emphasis on the “sir,” we do not have a few days, indeed we have reservations in Wichita for tonight and then reservations for, uh, Bets, where are we after Wichita?”
Mac: “Well, we got a hotel here in Dodge, actually one of those new motels also. I could run you folks down to there.”

My father put on his low, reasonable lawyer’s voice. “You don’t quite understand what I am saying. It’s not you, I’m sure I have not made myself clear. We have PAID reservations for tonight and for the next, let’s see, 33 nights all across the country. We simply cannot lose our, uh, momentum.”

Mac stepped back and looked at father. Indeed he looked at us all together, in detail, for the very first time. He rested his leg on our front bumper, adjusted his weight to counterbalance the tilt, pulled out a small rag and mopped his forehead and told us the facts of life.

“You folks are not understanding ME,” he allowed pleasantly but firmly. “I do not have a wheel for this car. I do not have an axle or a brake pad for this car. Don’t ask me about other garages because I own the best stocked garage in three counties.” He paused, leaned in as if to tell us a confidential secret: “If there were a garage next door so you could go ask, you still wouldn’t find no parts for that car. This is John Deere and Ford flatbed country, folks. Not even the biggest farmer in greater Dodge has anything with as much chrome as you are toting around. I gotta call somewhere, maybe the factory, they gotta figure out the buses to get it here, and first I gotta figure out just what we actually are going to need at this end.”

Mac paused for effect, then continued. “Greater Dodge City has a lot to offer the vacationer, I hear. I can get Nick at the Chamber of Commerce to take you under his wing while you’re waiting. Mrs. Tucker’s restaurant serves a passable chicken pot pie and though the town is dry, I think I can help you folks get some Seagrams Seven to pass away the two or three nights you will be visiting us.”

I felt like crying but mother beat me to it. Strange, also, as I had never seen her cry, even at her father’s funeral where she stood surrounded by her family and announced that everyone dies and even if grandpa had lived a long life, which he had not, we would have felt the same way so we should just get used to the situation. She was pretty good at it too, not over the top, just a discrete inhalation carefully delivered as if she had attempted to squelch it but, so upset she was, it just sort of leaked out.

“Lady,” said Mac as he turned away, “I can listen to you cry or I can jack up your car and try to help you. I’m going to get my jack and tools from the truck, and that should give yourself enough time to pull yourself together.” Wow, I thought, as he turned towards his vehicle, was that a simple mid-Western taciturn John Wayne style bit of truth telling, or was there a mild tinge of sarcasm woven in there near the end? I ended up voting for sarcasm; if I was only fourteen years old and could still feel it, then it sort of had to be there for the listening….

Dad spent that night recalculating. By increasing miles per day, we did not have to change everything. Most future reservations could be rolled over or another location found. It was Wednesday and Mac finally declared we could be on the road Friday afternoon and so the future was secured with minimal losses. It also occurred to me that the increased driving schedule would give my mother more time at the wheel. I wondered secretly if that positive aspect might have crept into her mind. With mothers, you never know.

“That there is a real colt six shooter, 1880 or so.” I was holding an enormously heavy silver pistol with a black iron handle. I was trying to hold it upright with just one hand and without putting my finger through the trigger guard, even though Cowboy Billy had assured me it was not loaded. We were at “Olde Dodge City,” a family of tourists although we were the only ones who were present by accident as opposed to by choice.

“Hold it steady, there, pard,” allowed Cowboy Billy, who seemed to have an authentic mid-Western accent except when he got annoyed at our group of teens, in which event there was a twinge of Jersey City on offer. I was the most awkward of the five of us, even more out of balance than Valerie, who at sixteen (as she announced) was really misplaced with the children’s group.

“I’m trying,” I whined.

“See over there,” said Cowboy Billy, although not indicating the location of the “where.” That thar is Boot Hill, and that very kind of six-shooter, maybe even that very gun, put the men whose tombstones you’re seein’ into that cold earth maybe 75 years ago.”

I recalled being shown a totally unbelievable fenced plot of about 10,000 square feet, on which were planted, mostly askew, about a dozen fat crosses with epitaphs appropriate to the audience. My favorite: “Here lies Three Fingers Jones, Rotting down to his bones, He caught an Earp bullet, Then died like a pullet, and we held down his coffin with stones.”

Someone running “Olde Dodge City” had a vivid imagination and was also none too bright.
“Let’s go over to the ole saloon, why don’t we,” allowed Cowboy Billy with an exaggerated drawl. “You guys and gals, just put your Colts down over there and follow me.” As I placed my weapon gingerly on the table, I happened to notice the “Made in Japan” legend cut into the bottom of the handle, and was about to ask Cowboy Billy about that until I thought better of it.

The highlight was the Dodge Saloon and Gambling Hall. It was borrowed, I could swear, from a Republic Pictures oater I had seen where someone who looked like Gene Autry was forced to shoot someone who looked like Jack Palance; the decedent fell neatly backwards out of the front doors, framing a perfect Hollywood death with the corpse draped down the steps head on the ground, while those doors swung and creaked a couple of cycles before they finally rested as a still memorial to the unhappy cowboy who messed with the actor who wore the white shirt. We got to play the roulette table for jelly beans, and had our colas poured for us out of recycled bottles labeled “Rotgut” and “Moonshine.”

My father looked amused. My mother wanted to ride one of the small fly-bedecked horses tied up outside the saloon. I needed to pee, although the Olde Dodge City amusement park was unfortunately quite historically accurate, as the bathroom was a malodorous outhouse so odious that even the flies seemed to prefer the horses. We threw darts at Wanted Posters for the Clanton Brothers. We ended at the OK Coral. My father gave Cowboy Billy two bucks as a tip. Day one ended with chicken pot pie; Mrs. Tucker really could cook.

Day two—well, truth be told a visit to Dodge was really a one-day event, as there wasn’t anything to do on day two. Dodge was hot and small and the historical society was open only on weekends and this was Thursday. It was too hot to hike. My parents sat on folding chairs by the motel pool, reading and playing gin rummy. I was given five dollars, and walked up and down the main street and could only manage to spend a dime on a bottle of Yoohoo. In front of the Five and Ten, I tried to talk to a group of local teens but after a couple of minutes I lost their attention and they drifted off in pairs, pretending to talk to each other. That night Mrs. Tucker was given a chance with braised ribs; Mrs. Tucker better stick to chicken pot pies.

After a late breakfast we walked over to find Mac; our car was just coming down off the garage lift. It had a new front right tire and, behind it, we were assured there was a metal wheel and a new brake assembly. No one had thought to get a hub cap, but by then we were all ready to leave Dodge behind us even if the Roadmaster had been stripped of hubcaps, chrome and its silver paint. My father was worried that Mac would not take a check, but Mac was not from New York City, and threw our check into the cigar box he used as a cash drawer without even writing our telephone number on it.

So we left Dodge City 68 hours after we arrived, 72 years after Wyatt Earp arrived, 70 years after Ike Clanton took a bullet in his mouth and ended up under the sod of the real Boot Hill, wherever that might be located in the world of 1957. My mother drove out, but had the courtesy to hit a hundred only after we cleared the city limits. I wrote Mac a post card from the Grand Canyon but then lost his street address.

As if you needed a street address in Dodge City. All you would need, come to think of it, was to say “c/o Johansen’s garage.”

Actually, maybe all you would need was to address it to “Mac.”

Off the Grid

I was off the grid. It was not easy, but then again I didn’t expect it to be. There are the usual steps; no regular cell phone, no home phone, no credit cards, no bank accounts. You cannot have a driver’s license. Everything is cash. Social security is a problem but I sold my future checks to a friend, the money goes into a trust I set up but he is the sole beneficiary. We used an actuarial table for the value of the stream of income. He will figure out his own taxes. He paid me in cash. As for my taxes, I guess I am a tax fraud but if I am successfully off the grid then it doesn’t matter, does it?

You have to live somewhere. You could own property which is not such a good idea, so you need a lease. For that you need identification. I asked a client of mine how to do that. He smiled but knew not to ask me questions. I got a dummy license which I do not use, a dummy social security card which I do not use, and a dummy birth certificate. That and cash gets you a nice apartment.

Then there are taxes. Guess what; if you don’t make any reportable money you don’t owe anyone a tax return. Well, that seemed dumb, I have enough money to live on, I think forever, but to not make an investment return seemed dumb. There are people who offered to invest it for me and they do not know my real name, but those kinds of people are not perhaps the most reliable; and who do you complain to if they decide they forgot your name? If you don’t want your new name to become a grid-identity, you can’t really go make investments, although I did find a broker who said he would invest in stocks for me, making sure there were no dividends, and I did not have to sell them unless it became more important to get the money than to stay off the tax rolls. I am thinking about that.

Family and friends are a real problem up front. My wife is gone, but there are the kids. When I explained my plan, my great experiment, they got really unnerved. Then they got angry that I was disowning them and disowning their children. I can understand that. I feel badly about that. Maybe someday I will reappear in their lives but right now I think I have spent my whole life living for others and with what time I have left, let me do what I want. If I die and cannot be found and thus they never know, then I guess I will just disappear into the ether. Since I loved my own parents and damned near never visited their gravesites, and since people get cremated and their ashes are dropped in the ocean, then I figure it is okay to leave my kids with my memory alone. And if someone doesn’t know you already, a stranger or even say your great grandchild, well so what?

So I gave my kids enough money to send my grandchildren to college, and they will have to live with it.

Friends and colleagues? I told a couple, who thought I was crazy. When I disappeared I bet the rest of them thought I was crazy. I can live with that. They do what they want, I do what I want.

Fingerprints! I have one of those TSA passes, they have my fingerprints. I bet in the past I gave prints for something else also. I don’t plan to get arrested, and the American fascist state still hasn’t gotten to the point where everyone needs to be fingerprinted, so I think I am safe.

My face. I decided not to do surgery, that would leave someone who can make the link from my past to me. I used the opportunity to lose 80 pounds. I worked out to tighten up, as much as an old guy can tighten up what has already drooped down and got ugly. I went to lenses, threw out glasses. The lenses change my eye color too; isn’t science amazing. Noted for my bushy hair that survived all these decades and morphed into a gray silky and thick almost improbably impressive mane, well my razor and I now give me a classic case of male pattern baldness. I had to download a lot of pictures from the internet to capture that look. My beard is gone; my mustache that had gone along with it remains, colored to salt and pepper and completely refigured.

And the internet. You sort of need that to keep abreast of the world. You need to live somewhere with a great public library system, which lets you sit in front of a terminal anonymously. There are such places, just a little research needed. I had to change cities in any event, move far enough to get away from locations where I might disclose myself, and from people who knew me so well that they might be able to figure it out. Also, away from fancy tourist attractions or second home locations; when your friends have money, they tend to show up in those kinds of places.

Actually the hardest thing is something that you would think the simplest: I needed to change my name. I had to act like my assumed name was my real name. I found that a morose and reclusive personality kept interpersonal contacts at a minimum and allowed me to work on remembering that my name is now – well, you don’t need to know that, do you now?

The second hardest part was medical. I had to start anew under my new identity. It is hard with health care to just start fresh. People are suspicious. They think you are a thief on the run. They disbelieve you had the injections, the procedures, the medical or dental history you had. And I also did not want my dental records kept, did not want there to be pictures of my teeth and jaw. That level of concern in retrospect was a bit paranoid, but then again my entire mind set reeked of paranoia, why the hell was I doing this in the first place, I had to be a little bit “off.” Maybe more than a little bit? A local dental school where the students needed to practice and the emergency rooms and outpatient clinics in any decent sized city could fill in, unless of course I needed major medical care. I couldn’t maintain my Medicare, nor my supplementary insurance, and I wouldn’t lie and register my new self in Medicaid even if that were possible. So I have resolved not to get sick or get hit by a car, and if I fail in my resolve I will figure it out at the time.

I am paranoid mostly about my money which is all in cash. You put it in your apartment and your neighbor smokes in bed and it’s all gone. You go to a bank and then there you are, back on the grid. I keep it in a fireproof safe in a rented self-storage locker for which I pay cash. I am worried that someone will follow me for some reason, and figure I’m some old guy, and he’ll take my money as I leave the storage locker or, worse yet, force me to go back inside and open up my safe for him. I would carry a pistol, but then you’re either back on the grid of doing something illegal, right?

And what, I worry, if I happen to kick off with a zillion dollars of cash sitting in this vault? Sooner or later they open the locker, crack the vault and voila, there you are, bingo. And at that point there has to be better use of the money than someone I don’t know grabbing it. I was a lawyer, I looked up the law where I am living, I wrote a holographic will, if they open the vault they will find the will, and the money will get back to the kids so they maybe won’t think I was totally nuts. Then I thought, if someone opens the vault and sees the money would they not just burn the will and stuff their pockets? Probably. Well, you can’t solve everything so why worry about it. It’s not like you are writing a short story or something and it all has to be worked out neatly so some reader you don’t know sits back and says, “wow, what a guy, he’s a lot smarter than I am, I never could have done that foolproof.” Sometimes you just have to say, fuck it!

One more thing and then I will tell you why I am writing this, the interesting part that got me started. I want to describe me. Bear with me. I am 78 years old and look younger. I am white-skinned. I am now 5’8” which means I have shrunk over an inch, which I did not notice happening by the way. I weigh 144 pounds and do not look fat although my bones are small. My waist is 35 inches. My pants leg is 30 inches. The eyes are green with the lenses and brown without them. My hair fringe around my bald pate is pure white while my mustache has some trace of dark hair. I wear a 10 ½ shoe. I have a clearly inexpensive metal cross around my neck although I am Jewish, and you may catch me at an occasional Unitarian service where I keep to myself and volunteer for nothing. I spend my days reading and walking around. For holiday I take a bus on a cash ticket and rent a cabin by the water for one week at a time, where I like to sit on the beach and read. I watch sports on television but nothing else; I have given up on the news reports, as no one they feature there has ever bought me a beer. I have a group of retired friends who only know me by my adopted name; they think I came from New York and was a school teacher. They are average as people go, I suppose, but play a good game of pinochle and a careful game of nickel-dime poker, which is fine with me. I always liked fine food and wine and that is a problem, but on occasion I take out my suit and put on a French-cuffed shirt and cab over to one of the better restaurants in town and treat myself to a great meal. Unfortunately when you order a bottle of 2000 Lafite Rothschild they tend to make a fuss about you and want you to return, so I am careful to spread my business around. I even sometimes make reservations under another name which is sort of humorous, don’t you think? A man living under an assumed name needs another assumed name?

And that is where my story begins which is, improbably, a love story. Of sorts.

One evening I am having dover sole with a bottle of Le Montrachet. This is a very expensive indulgence but I have asked that the wine be served in the bottle, not decanted, and that the waiter bring it over and not the wine steward because I am a very private person, you see, and do not want to call attention to myself. So I am sipping my aperitif when a woman’s voice near me says, “Mr. Wilcox, may I introduce myself?” It does not occur to me that I have made this reservation in the name of Henry Wilcox; once you identify yourself at the reception, your name becomes irrelevant.

Mr. Wilcox?”

I am enjoying my rainwater madeira, surprised that such a subtle drink found its way onto the typical list featuring tequilas and seven kinds of martinis.

Sensing movement, I look up to find a woman in a dark suit standing in front of me, holding a bottle wrapped in a white cloth, its neck protruding and sporting a light sheen of condensation.

“I’m sorry to intrude, Mr. Wilcox, but it is not often we sell one of our prized bottles and since we are members of the same Church I couldn’t resist making your acquaintance.”

“Well, I am pleased to meet you, Mrs. – well, I am sorry,” a small self-deprecating smile is placed on my face, “I’m afraid I do not know your name.”

“And I do not know yours, or didn’t until I recognized you. Your waiter pointed you out, he was excited over your wine, and I looked and I said to myself, why I know that man, he comes to Church on occasion but keeps to himself, I ‘ve never seen him come downstairs for cider and cookies after the service. But here you are, aren’t you, right in my restaurant and ordering my favorite wine.”

“So you own this restaurant, do you?”

“Own –no, oh no. I am the sommelier here.”

“Really?” My blurt was insulting I am sure, it carried the incredulity in my mind, that a middle aged woman would oversee what was probably the best wine list in – well, in town.

“Oh, don’t worry about hurting my feelings, Mr. Wilcox; or if I may, Henry. I know I am a surprise, but it is what I do and [looking down in self-deprecation] I do manage to get the job done.”

“I’m sure you do, I’m sure you do.” I was having my longest conversation in the past half-year, I was not enjoying it, and it was with someone with whom I apparently had a connection and I did not even know her name. It occurred to me that I had better get my social graces in order or I was going to end up in some sort a problem back in the neighborhood.

“And I’m so sorry but I still do not know your name. Mrs?”

“I am Emily Steele but you should call me Emily. And I am doing what staff should not be doing which is standing in the middle of the main dining room chatting forever with a client. Forgive me, but may I have you taste the wine?”

“Oh, of course. Please. And, forgive me, but if this is your favorite wine, perhaps….” I paused and got the answer I had hoped for.

“So gracious of you, but of course I can’t as I am ‘on duty’ so to speak. But allow me to pour for you,” she said, all the while twisting her corkscrew while presenting the wine label to me, then dropping a taste into a crystal glass she had carried from the kitchen for the occasion, scooping the regular wine goblet neatly off the table, holding the bottle erect, placing the cork just to my left hand on the table while I tipped the glass to my lips and nodded that the wine was fine.

“Henry, I am sorry to have intruded and I’ll let Louis, he’s your waitstaff, finish the evening with you but I just couldn’t resist.”

“Well, thank you so much,” I said with as much sincerity as I could muster as I was just about to escape the uncomfortable encounter in one piece when she leaned toward me and almost hissed into my ear.

“You know, we both love fine wine. If not tonight, perhaps we can share a good bottle at another time.”

And then she was gone, leaving only her suggestion and the mildly cloying scent of toilet water behind her. I was jolted by the delivery of a plate of snails by Louis, who I swear smiled conspiratorily at me, however briefly. Damn, I thought, now I am going to have to remember her name. Emily! Emily what? Yes, easy, Emily Steele. I was about to relax my mind when I realized there was something else I would have to remember: Henry Wilcox. My name. this was going to be confusing; did I ever give my real phony name to the Church people? Don’t think so.

“Shit,” I said to myself. At least, I thought I said it to myself but the couple at the next table turned to look at me, quickly before turning away, so I guess what I thought was said in my mind had slipped out of my mouth. “Shit shit,” I thought, taking care this time to zip my lip. Great way not to be noticed….

I didn’t go to Church for a month, maybe more and I surely did not go back to Emily’s restaurant, but part of my plan of blending into the neighborhood was to appear – well, regular, normal, harmless, known to people but not in a creepy way, just blend. Attending Church when I had been a regular attendee at Synagogue was all part of my carefully conceived over-all plan to disappear into what I conceived to be local normalcy, not become the subject of speculation, not to be labeled as particularly strange, just more of a shy and private person.

One Sunday, by now Fall was coming and I had a raincoat over my blue blazer and was hustling up the front steps of the Church against the sense of oncoming chill, I had just about reached for the front door when a woman’s voice said, “why, Henry, is that you?”

I turned to greet Emily’s wide smile.

“Well, hello, Emily,” I said, swinging the door open wide. There was quite a breeze that day, and the Church was old and its door of heavy wood, and I almost teetered from the pull of the weight, but managed to maintain my gallant gesture and also get myself inside before my strength failed. When you get to my age, you can still remember what you should be doing but, to your occasional surprise, your body isn’t able to comply with your mind’s instructions.

“Thank you, Henry,” she said. “I have not seen you for a few weeks. Were you ill?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” I replied hastily and by reflex, thereby losing my easy explanation. “no, I am fine….”

Emily allowed me to trail off, a sign of good judgment I must say. We took to unbuttoning our coats as we shuffled silently towards the middle aisle. For a moment I thought she was expecting to sit with me but a couple of her contemporaries gave her a compact wave and she turned to me and indicated she would sit with her friends, which allowed me to sit by myself near the back and escape at the end without engaging in any conversation.

The sermon was about charity as self-indulgence. I found myself wondering how the Minister would recognize charity as not being self-indulgent, although I had never thought it was self-indulgent in the first place. But my persona certainly did not allow me start conversations, let alone involving religion and tautology, and I was on my feet and turning as the final hymn was being sung when Emily was in front of me, smiling again. Her neat lipstick was now slightly smudged but otherwise she was fully put together, the kind of woman with closely cut hair of the correct light blonde tones, just a dash of eyeliner, clip gold earnings, soft brown eyes with a hint of light in them, and just enough flesh under her skin so that her face appeared brushed by a few age lines, not ravaged by them. Her neck was smooth down to her single strand of pearls. Emily was appropriate for Church, wearing God-respecting clothes and also respecting her age, which I guessed to be – well, somewhere between mid-fifties and mid-sixties. If I were back – well, home – where people “had their faces done” – I would have guessed her in the late sixties but somehow I did not see Emily’s social circle electing for plastic surgery; everyone knew you forever, who were you trying to kid anyway, half the people in town had gone to public school with you, Emily, or with your two brothers, so you went and had the bags cut out from under your eyes in order to impress – who was that again?

“I am so glad I caught you before you left.” I thought, I bet she was, I bet she bounded up from her seat as soon as the last bar of the hymn began, I bet she knew I usually bolted for the hills and did not talk to anyone, and I bet her goal was to change all that.

“Can I invite you to join my friends and me for some cider and cookies in the social room downstairs? It’s about time you met some of the people here in your Church, Henry. And this is your Church, you know.”

“Now that you invite me, I’d be glad to join you and your friends,” I said. “Oh God, my worst nightmare” I thought.

“Wonderful,” she nearly trilled and as I stepped into the aisle she held me firmly in place by my forearm. “Henry, I would like you to meet Linda Schneider here; and Noami Cutter-Rheems, and this is Sarah Lincoln but relax, she is not related. Ladies, please say hello to Henry Wilcox.”

It was a long half-hour downstairs but the cider was nice and cold. I was reserved but polite and they did not much pry although I did reply at one point that I had taught school. It all went well until the Minister was called over to meet me, and he produced a card and said he wanted to put me on “the rolls,” not to worry, I didn’t have to make any donations or do anything at all but they liked to be able to know their parishioners. I told him that Henry Wilcox lived at some invented number on a nearby street, and the only strange moment was when I said I did not have a telephone. The small knot of people paused and looked me, but I just held the Minister’s gaze until he declared that that was “quite alright of course, everyone is obsessed by their cell phones these days anyway.”

When I left, I remembered to start walking in the direction of my invented address rather than towards my apartment. Why did I get myself into an unnecessary set of lies? And what was I doing in a mid-Western Church anyway? Why hadn’t I decided to disappear outside of the sight of God? So after that, I decided I did not have to go to Church after all; or perhaps I could have an epiphany and become a Presbyterian, not that I knew what that meant from a religious standpoint but there was one of their Churches a couple of blocks from my apartment. I was pretty sure that the Steele coven spelled bad news for me, let alone forcing me to keep remembering my own name. Besides, I gave them a bogus street address and, if they were interested in me and tried to use that address, they would get the message pretty quickly that I was not interested in them.

About a week later I am in the library, at a terminal, trying to understand this blockchain invention and why it is going to take over the world as we know it, provided we don’t blow up the world first, and I get a whiff of an all-too-familiar bath water from my starboard quarter, and I suppose it is likely that more than one person in my City uses that scent but somehow I knew, just knew, that I was in trouble once again.

I turned my head as slowly as I could, as if I could not sense the situation but knew that someone was standing there, and sure enough there she was, this time in a flowered blouse with a bit too low a cut, and an incongruous pair of jeans with flowers embroidered on the knees. Same make-up, a bit harsh in the bright library lights.

“There you are, you sly devil you,” she said as she pulled over an empty chair from the next kiosk and sat down next to me, her knees so close that they touched my khakis, clearly on purpose.

“Oh, it’s you,” I cleverly observed and said no more.

“Yes indeed and I was worried about you.” I suspected that ‘nosy’ was the right word, that ‘worry’ had little to do with it. “It has been six weeks since you were at Church, the girls and I began to think we scared you away. Did we scare you away, Henry?” Her voice dropped almost to an unbecoming purr. “I certainly didn’t have that in mind.”

“Of course not,” I said with a slight hint of indignation. “I just found that the services at First Presbyterian were really sort of more my style.” I paused to give my statement gravity. “Nothing personal, of course,” I added.

“You know,” she said quietly, leaning forward from the waist to come close to my face and affording a great view down the front of her blouse, “you are a very naughty man.” She held the pose, waiting to see my reaction.

“Well, I hate to disappoint you, and I may be a lot of things but naughty is not one of them,” I said with a broad smile.

“Your home address is a shoe store, you know. Or likely, you did not know.”

Offense being better than defense, I attacked. “So you came around looking for me? I can’t believe it. You seem like a lovely woman, why would you do that? Now you embarrass me. I am a private person. You and your friends were wonderfully accepting but truth be told, I just want to be left alone. I have had a rather [dramatic pause followed by] complicated life. At this stage I could really use my space.”

She leaned even closer, the smell of her bath water was all around me, her lips were inches from my ear, but she spoke clearly in my ear in a dulcet tone of slight admonition: “Why are you giving me such bull-shit?”

I had no answer except the honest one so I told her. “Because I am on the run and I need to stay invisible.”

“I knew it, I just knew it. You stay to yourself, you pay with cash, hundred dollar bills to be precise, and your cuff links are solid gold with large star sapphires.” Her eyes sparkled in triumph.

“So you understand why I don’t want to get involved with other people, then.”

“I understand why you don’t want to get caught in a lie with other people.” Her lips now were right next to my ear. Her exhaust of air almost drowned out her words: “But I am not ‘other people.’”

I could have sworn her mouth touched the hairs on my right ear, a quick glancing sweep, it might have been the force of her words, but afterwards there was a tickle lurking on the edge of my right earlobe.

“What IS your name, by the way,” she asked, filling the fifteen seconds of silence following her remark during which I was speechless. “It is not Henry Wilcox, is it? I bet you make reservations with false names all the time.”

I had to cut this off, so I tried. Pushing my chair sideways to destroy the suggestion that I was her co-conspirator, I sat upright to create a more formal playing field. “Look, I hate to ruin your story, and I know you would prefer that I was a man of mystery, but I assure you I am not a criminal and I tell you that the truth of the details is both uninteresting and private so, while I think you are a lovely person, I would really not like to get into it. If you don’t mind,” I added lamely.

“Well,” she began, and reached out and placed her bare hand on my bare forearm and kept it there, warm and open, “I am not going to be a problem. I’m just a working woman who likes wine and whist and going to Church. I accept your apology.” I blinked but she went on. “Why don’t we go out for dinner tonight, nothing fancy, and we can talk. We can have some wine together, that would be nice, and you can tell me the name you are using when you are not saying you are Henry Wilcox, and we can take it from there. What do you say?”

“Emily, I am just not sure that you understand what I am telling you.”

“No, you’re wrong about that. It is you who is not understanding what I am telling you. Shall we say 7:00 tonight at Jack’s Grille, over on Fourth?” She stood before I could think of a response. “And don’t be too late, dear.” As she turned to leave she said over her shoulder, “You know I do know how to find you.” And then she was gone.

I probably should have cleared out my safe, grabbed a few clothes and just left town that afternoon. A couple of bus changes and I could be anywhere. There would be no evidence of me left, except for my furnished apartment which was covered by a cash security deposit of four month’s rent so there wasn’t much chance the building management would come looking for me; the place was hardly lived in and I was leaving behind a sixty inch TV and a pile of other electronics. It just seemed like such an effort. I was not as young as I once was; who is? More importantly, what’s the risk. I could tell her my real fake name. She would be intrigued. We could have a little wine; maybe a lot of wine. Maybe she is just lonely. I could explain again how I want to be alone.

Or perhaps I don’t need to go that far. Perhaps it would not kill me to have a friend, so long as I made clear we did not end up as a social pair plugged in to other people. In fact, as I thought about it, it seemed possible that she would even prefer that. A little mystery for a middle-aged woman working nights in a restaurant, pouring twenty dollar bottles of Rioja into the glasses of people who thought they were drinking top shelf. And maybe I could find out what made her tick; she surely was deeper than she seemed at first, there was gotta say a part of me that found some mystery in her. The danger bell clanged loudly in my head as I dressed for dinner. Jack’s was strangely close to my apartment but, that had to be a coincidence as there was no way she could know where I lived, or she would have gone there rather than to the shoe store.

I arrived first and asked for a table in the center of the room, which was over-lit and noisy. The kind of place with bare wooden tables and modern china, with silverware designed with odd shapes which fell off the edges of plates unless balanced just so. The wine list was ordinary but they had a couple of high end items. Hopefully they had been kept at correct temperature or you would be buying a $175 bottle of wine vinegar. Red or white? Who knew what she liked? Actually I did, she liked Le Montrachet, but that thousand dollar bottle was not to be had at Jack’s so I ordered the most expensive cabernet on the menu and had it opened before Emily arrived, ten minutes late as I was sure she would be. I know this game, though from distant memory.

I rose and she did not wave me down but rather waited for me to circle the table and pull out her chair. She answered with a smile. She was wearing a grey knit dress that was one size too small and twenty years too young for her, same single strand of pearls, and she looked over-ripe and slightly past but certainly someone who was trying and not wholly failing. She arranged her purse below her chair, looked up and smiled. “You look very handsome tonight.” She said.

“Thank you; and you look like a million yourself.”

Another smile, a glance down.

“I took the liberty of ordering a bottle of cabernet. It isn’t Lafite but in my view it is the best they have to offer. May I pour for you?”

“Well, I poured for you before, so I’d say it’s your turn.” No irony or edge in that; a pleasant repartee delivered with a pleasant smile.

As the wine was slowly slipping into her goblet, I looked up and told her that mystery was not my MO and that my real name was, well I had told her my real fake name but said that between us and her friends and her restaurant we should still use ‘Henry.’ She nodded, accepting the information as if she expected it.

“Tell me about yourself,” she said.

“Ah no, you must expect it won’t be that easy. And you caught me lying before and I am not going to lie to you again,” I lied, “so why don’t I ask you to tell me about you?”

She laughed, a pleasant laugh, not too loud and not too cackly and with a slight tinkle. Sipping the wine, she noted it had great tannins.

“That’s fair. But not too much. I am 59 years old. I went to community college in Chicago and worked as a bookkeeper for a while. I was married twice. They both died. I didn’t do it. My second husband had moved her to work as a manager at the rolling mill on the West Side. He died about the time they closed. Here I was, I had some friends, no children, not that much money but this town is not expensive—.” She paused and smiled knowingly. “But you know that, that is one of the reasons you are here, isn’t it?”

I tipped my glass slightly in her direction.

“I always liked wines. I knew the wife of the owner of my restaurant. She suggested I might hostess there, and I started and went to the tastings that the wine wholesalers gave to the staff and started to learn. I had a good nose for it, and pretty soon I was a wine steward. This is not a sophisticated town, Henry. It didn’t take a degree to serve wine to most of the people. When an expensive bottle got ordered, I just would grab it, bring it out with a flourish and tell the customer that it was my favorite wine. That usually got me a $20 tip on top of what was on the dinner tab.” She gave me a big grin, my cue.

“So, Le Montrachet is not your favorite wine?”

She laughed. “Of course not. Never tasted it in my life. This may come as a shock, but I generally don’t get into wines that wholesale for $600 a bottle.” She sipped again, and looked up. “This is pretty tasty,” she said and then discreetly smacked her lips.

“Now your turn.”

“Me? Well, I told you my name. Won’t tell you where I am from either. I already told you I’m not a crook and don’t ask me why I am here because I won’t tell you. I used to teach English in High School. I am 73 years old and so far all my arms and legs are still in working order. I like it here in town. It is quiet. I get to do what I never got to enjoy in the day. I don’t have to support anyone with money or with emotions. I don’t have to do good for the world. I can just enjoy the quiet, take a half hour shower each morning, and take walks in the sun and read all the books I want to read. It’s that simple. That’s me.”

“And your wife?”

“I won’t lie and say I didn’t have one. She was fine, really fine as these things go. She passed away a few years ago. My kids, they are still back home. They took this thing of mine pretty hard and got pretty angry. I do feel badly when I think about it so I don’t think about it. Does it pop into my mind much? Less than I thought it would. I guess I am pretty selfish and self-contained. Well, you’ve seen that yourself, right?” I paused to swish my wine around and take a deep drink. The waiter took our order, a couple of steaks, hers medium and mine rare, and split the hash browns. While you’re at it, waiter, I think we need another bottle.

We ate and talked and drank the second bottle and I was having a good time, gotta say. Emily was not so smart but not so dumb either, and she had common sense, people sense, and I was sure she knew that some of what I told her was untrue and was smart enough not to make a point of it. Near the end of the dinner, I made my big mistake, and it is all my fault. I had hoped that when she was mellow I could deliver my message and she would, in effect, shrug and thank me for the meal. But it seemed that delivering a message at the end of our meal also was her own plan. She leaned forward, face open and eyes wide and with the most pleasant of real-life smiles asked me if I wanted to know what she was thinking.

Now super bells should have been going off because that is one hell of a great question. How can you tell someone with whom you are not fighting that you really don’t give a damn what’s on their mind? And although you really don’t want to hear about their agenda, because it almost always is not your agenda, you almost have to listen to the answer and furthermore you can’t object or cry foul because, by ginger, it was YOU who asked for it in the first place. I was sober enough not to answer “yes” and drunk enough not to say anything and Emily, what a smart cookie she turned out to be, she just took the silence as permission, which of course it was in its own way.

“I want to have a relationship with you. You are a nice looking smart man. You go to Church though you don’t care which one. I can forgive that since I am Jewish.” I spurted my last sip of wine back into my glass but she held up her hand to continue. “You have money galore. You have to be lonely, I don’t care what you say, and this town grows on you like a mold if you are here too long, you will be going batty any day now. I believe that about the only thing you have ever said to me that was true is that you aren’t a criminal, and that’s nice. As for me, I am lonely and bored and you are the best thing I’ve seen since my last husband died, and frankly the best thing I’ve seen since way before that, and while I suspect you aren’t as young as you say, you look healthy and you don’t limp and you don’t drool and I bet you could get it up once in a while which is lot more than I have seen in the last eight years. So, Henry or whatever your real real name is, I would really like to be your friend. Your close friend. In every way. And lastly, I am not threatening you, because I am not that kind of person and would never create such an unhealthy basis for a relationship, but if I were you I think I would be inclined to accept real fast.” She paused, then added “if you know what I mean.”

I sat still because what the hell else do you do? And her smarts quotient rose triple in that moment because she was a player, and further she dared me not to know what she meant, when in fact I was 200% certain that she herself did not know what she meant.

The coffee arrived in silence, skim for her, cream for me. I dumped in a ton of cream and slowly stirred it.

Finally, I had to reply. “I don’t know what to say,” I said.

“Good,” she said promptly as she picked up her coffee cup, “that’s the right answer, I’ll take that as a yes.”

A romantic person might be prone to describe the few months as a blur of passion, but a realist would call it a year of slow surrender to a new and pleasant status quo. Turned out that although my aging arms and legs remained wholly functional, another appendage suffered greatly from the passage of time. Although, it turned out that under those usually formal clothes Emily had a serviceable body with enough curves and groans to modestly rekindle parts of my personality that I had set aside sadly but, I had thought, permanently. We were seldom a couple to the outside world, although at times we would sit together at a variety of City churches, a curious ritual we did not talk about beyond identifying that Sunday’s favored locale. We first spent nights together at her apartment, where one bottle of wine led to another bottle and then to falling asleep together and, finally and regularly thereafter, to such intimacy as we could muster. Emily was eager but not pushy, seemed pleased with whatever occurred, and I found that being held, touched and warmed was better than being alone. Such is the nature of man, I told myself, which sort of took me off the hook for violating my master plan.

Emily did call me by any name beyond Henry Wilcox. We read, walked, and mostly chatted. The fact that she knew about English literature than I did, even though my cover story was that I taught English, became evident but she was kind enough, or smart enough, not to point out that anomaly. I was under cover, that was a fact with no impact on our lives.

Except the cash. Emily was fine with splitting all our mutual costs, but once we started spending the occasional night at my apartment, and my defenses were relaxed, the issue of money came up. Emily had credit cards, of course, but when we ate out or went to an occasional concert or play at the University there was that awkward mechanical moment where costs were divided and half paid by her card and half by my seemingly boundless hundred dollar bills. People are people, and I am sure that with some pride, late at night, I alluded to my sizeable stash kept in a vault in a secret place. Emily never asked, no doubt knowing that a question in that area was one of our taboos.

I did become something of a regular at her restaurant, and she told me that the owner had started to give her a percentage of the price of each of the bottles of wine I ordered, since I was clearing out their entire store of expensive old wines that no one else was ordering. Emily wanted me to know that right away, she said, to be sure that I understood that she was not trying to profit from my friendship, that she deeply valued our relationship for itself. She even offered to give me her “bonus” but of course I grandly rejected that offer with a wave of the back of my hand accompanied by a small smile which was proxy for a very wide smile inside.

By the following Spring we had been seeing each other almost daily, sleeping together most nights, and had fallen into a pleasant pattern of comfort. I kept waiting for my body to fail me, particularly after one of our rare energetic nights together, but the old Timex in my chest just kept on ticking and the only suggestion from the intern at the public clinic was that I might want to cut down a bit on the salt. When not together, I continued to read and walk, and every so often I would walk across town to my locker and re-supply my wallet with a few hundreds. I was burning more money than I had anticipated, but then again I was fine unless I lived until 145 or so. The only negative in my life was a tinge of occasional guilt; here I was in effect having, let’s face it, an emotional relationship with someone who was not within my family, as I thought of it, while my children and grandchildren did not even know if I was alive, suffering, ill or destitute. I thought about that a lot, to tell you the truth, but at night when my sagging body curled into the warmth of Emily’s full and not-yet-broken bulk, I was sure that I was entitled to my life and did not need to account for it.

One day in early or mid May, Emily had left my apartment around noon to go back to her place, and get ready for her stint at the restaurant which began with set-up at 4:00. The sun had been out all morning, the air warm and dry, crocuses and a few random green shoots were poking up, and yes the birds were chirping and the robins were punching neat little holes in the ground. A Norman Rockwell moment, I thought, as I headed down Fourth and turned left onto Commercial, a perfect day to walk to the locker and restock my wallet. I used my pass-card to enter the building, opened the locker and stared at my empty safe, sitting open in its corner. My hand-written will lay on the floor. To say I could not believe it would be useless understatement.

This was indeed an existential crisis. In an effort to leave no trace or links I had turned absolutely every asset into the cash in that vault. I sat down in the small locker room, back against the cinder block wall, knees flat on the ground, and waited for death to clutch me by the heart. Unfortunately, I seemed to be surviving, and I realized I would have to go to the police and see if anything could be done. I did have my alias and my false life fully established and there was no reason why the police would question my story or blow my cover. What did they care if I was using a name I was not born with, it didn’t change the fact that I was robbed.

I had to turn over on my hands and knees to brace my palms against the wall and force myself up, absorbing the now-familiar ache in my knees and the small of my back. I locked up and began walking towards City Hall and started to have second thoughts. Would I be believed? No one had seen the contents of the vault. How much money was in the vault in cash? Well that’s a lot of money not to be in a bank, how sir do you happen to come by that large sum? Oh, you earned it, well that’s fine just give us a reference to confirm that and of course we will try to solve this, even take finger prints and all, and by the way do you happen to have any serial numbers of any of those bills? I stopped on the steps of City Hall, unsure what to do. Hard to process all these facts and problems. Did it matter if my cover were blown? I could not continue with my plan without any money so all I had to do was confess my plan, which was in every way legal even if strange, and then I would have to go back to my old life and see what happened next. My kids would shake their heads and think I was a foolish old man who deserved what happened to him, but they wouldn’t turn their backs on me I was sure. And I could introduce them to Emily, and Emily certainly seemed to have some money, enough to live in a middle-class sort of way, that might help….

Emily! She could help me figure out my next steps. It was only about 2pm, I could quickly walk over to her place, we could talk, maybe she could call in sick just this once, she was pretty good at thinking things through, and no doubt there were things I was not focused on that required discussion. Walking as quickly as I dared, I got to her building about ten to three and rang her buzzer. No buzz back, no voice on the intercom. Damn thing must be broken. Maybe she was napping or in the shower. I needed to see her. I rang the superintendent, he knew who I was, sure he would let me in and accompany me up while I knocked on the door. Up in the elevator to five, left down the hall, and there was the door to 508 but no answer to the apartment bell or loud knocking.

“I know she’s in there, she never goes to the restaurant this early, I’m worried she has a problem. Please open the door for me.”

“Well, I’m not supposed to do that, ya know?”

“Oh I’m sure but you know me, right? And you can come in with me, okay? In case there’s a problem. And to make sure, you know, that I don’t take anything?”

“I dunno, maybe we should call the cops?”

“If there’s something wrong we should go inside right away,” I argued, a point fortified by the hundred dollar bill I handed to him from my wallet.

“Allright but I’ll go in also, just like you said.”

The master key opened the door and I called out. No answer. No one in the shower. I went down the hall and the bedroom was empty, the bed neatly made. Where the hell was she, anyway? As I turned I noticed the sliding door on the closet was open. There were no clothes on the hangers.

From the pictures I was shown, Natalie McLaughlin, aka Susanna Stern, aka Louisa Tarkington, and apparently also aka Emily Steele late of the City, was wanted in three states for defrauding older men, one of whom was found dead of a suspicious heart attack in Newark, New Jersey. Her current whereabouts were unknown. She was, apparently an expert in staying off the grid, relying on a series of false identifications. I envied the dead guy in Newark; I wish to hell she had killed me rather than making me an old fool led around by what was left of his forlorn member.

The kids were sympathetic until the enormity of what had befallen me became apparent, and all this about an old man who refused to fall ill and qualify for a shared bed in some old age facility. My telling them about the will I had left in the vault did not much alleviate the situation. My grandchildren were a comfort, particularly during my bouts of depression. My friend let me again collect my social security checks; I suspect that my son Mel had made some sort of a financial deal with him but I was afraid to ask and they were too kind to talk about it.

As I write this I am now turning 88 and still going strong. My Emily remains among the missing. I must say I have a growing admiration for Emily, she was better at my ultimate game than I was. Much better.

And late at night, alone in my son’s spare room, I sort of miss her.

February 2018